Obama as Siddhartha by Kenneth Tin-kin Hung.
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This essay aims to explore the struggle of culture and nations for sovereignty and self-determination, using a primary visual text by Kenneth Tin-Kin, Siddartha Obama. Tin-Kin uses a chaotic combination of signifier's to reveal global economic and environmental influences and stereotypes. I will discuss how the United States behaves like, and pursues the objectives of an empire while being unprepared to commit itself ideologically to imperialism.
Few empires have survived for long without suppressing opposition, and where created to supply the invaders with goods it could not otherwise acquire."the empire that does not dare to speak its name -an empire in denial"? (Ferguson 2003, p.317)
The secondary image Imperialism by Leon Kuhn makes the bold statement that the Political Party in power is of no significance as to the ideological foreign policies the United States employs to dominate sub-ordinate nations as discussed by Chomsky (2004) Driven partly by religious idealism and partly by a belief in the righteousness and overwhelming superiority of European culture, the imperialists seek to make the world, one culture. Christian, liberal, and, ultimately commercial and industrial. The United States pursues patterns of subjugation and silencing, of oppression and annexation of territory, or the radical destruction of culture and economy. This was demonstrated when
marginalising natives as “others” for the progress of “civilisation”, in this process, imperialism persists.“Collin Powell addressed the UN Secretary Council informing its members that “the US would go to war with or without UN authorisation” (Chomsky 2004, p.77) The United States continues to “abridge the sovereignty of others, often by force or threat of force” Williams (1980 p.162)
Off / On by Leon Kuhn.
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The colonialist enterprise in which the U.S. seeks, has to be understood in territorial and capitalist logics of power. When indigenous nations became a problem for expansionists, hegemony and ethnocentrism neutralises indigenous ownership with political oppression and dominant political ideologies. Anglo American legal and political practice, become a signifier of U.S. moral and political superiority. The U.S. is an empire that uses cultural imperialism to its advantage. Tin-Kin's composition is dynamic, vibrant and colourful portraying conflicting images, as is the subaltern ideology of an abstract empire; absence of explicit recognition, yet permeates society as a
“way of life.” and “by providing the profits to the corporations” (Williams 1980, p.150) The idea of empire itself is completely naturalised (thus a way of life) but also utterly depoliticised, thus the difficulty of recognising it as a historical process comparable to others. This strikes a vital chord and a conspicuous example of Anglo American consumer imperialism and its victimisation of the Third World. A reference to this dichotomy is the metaphor of a white body on a man of African decent, and the African map at his feet.
The hybridity of U.S. culture, has become a vehicle for political and economic power, and an international communication tool, thus a dynamic force on its own. In particular, governmental and non-governmental bodies exert power abroad importing and exporting material goods and ideas as well as creating international networks and organisations, coupled with the rise of U.S television and culture. The image of a deer (Bambi) wearing a gas mask metaphorically defines the ethnocentrism of the U.S. as the benevolent reformer and indigenous people as in need of civilising. In this context, culture, and American culture in particular, does not signify a specific meaning, but rather a combination of ideologies, stereotypes, aspirations, emotions, and identities shared by human beings living within a geographically and politically defined area.
This model of forcing consumer products and ideas on foreign nations is fundamentally flawed:"Culture," contemplates Iriye, "determines what the ends of a nation are; power proves the means for obtaining them." (Iriye 1997, p.12)
Conflict between savagery and civilisation, subaltern conflict in which civilisation must and would prevail because God willed it and the continent required it. As the result of the inevitable forces of human history, imperial violence was not under anyone's control and not anyone's fault. Every native, tells this story over and over again."American pop culture isn't conquering the world." Perhaps, Hermes wondered, Anglo American cultural imperialism is "just part of the mix." (Hermes, 1994)
This is denoted in the glowing aura and symbolically sacred lotus surrounding Obama in Siddartha Obama.“Freedom of expression cannot be sought invidiously in one territory, and ignored in another. For with authorities who claim the secular right to defend divine decree there can be no debate no matter where they are” (Said 1993, p.89)
A significant and central, yet often overlooked, element in the power position of the United States relative to its rivals is oil. Oil has become the fuel of choice in land, air and sea transport. Oil also plays an important, if somewhat less crucial, role in heating and electricity generation, oil-powered machinery also became crucial to modern agriculture. With the development of the petrochemical industry, oil has become a central mythology to almost every area of modern life becoming an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, and continues to be central to military power and to modern industrial society, possession of ample domestic oil supplies and control over access to foreign oil reserves has been an important focus of rivalry among the great powers and a significant source of conflict between oil consuming industrial and therefore economically powerful countries and the diaspora of oil-producing non-industrial nations,
foreign policy and globalisation provide insights into the relationship between private power and public policy. Thus, the United States, turns to the major oil companies to secure national interests in foreign oil sources. Reliance on the major oil companies as vehicles of the national interests enhances the influence of the oil industry, and facilitates control of the world oil economy by the most powerful private interests: “bulldozers attacking orchards like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees, piling them on heaps and the people are left like windblown scarecrows made of rags and palm branches” (Ali 2002, p.82) The history of oil and foreign policy provides many examples of the links between the internal organisation of the U.S. and its external behaviour “The conquered cities went into economic and spiritual decline” (Ali 2002 p.82) [/quote]Oil and the auto mobile have been potent symbols of the Anglo American way of life, American popular culture has come to equate the myth of private auto-mobile and personal mobility with individual freedom, as signified by the patriotic, self indulgent and polluting 4WD ('fuel guzzler') Cheney placed inside, a man accused of war crimes, who has admitted to the authorisation and necessity of torture. The amount of damage the United States are producing in the wake of their desperate policies cannot be underestimated.“with enormous poverty in a country of rich resources and potential, wielding great wealth to foreign investors and a small sector of the population” (Chomsky 2004, p.64)
It is significant to note that Siddartha Obama reflects a binary opposition in the arrangement of fuel pumps placed on American coffins on right hand side of Obama and the wind energy propeller on the left. This can be interpreted as a political ideology in the struggle for traditional right wing domination of economy and globalisation, the human sacrifices made to achieve it, and the leftist ideals of socialism. A mass society with a mass culture annihilating liberty, democracy, and individualism.
This cultural imperialism, is the spread of modernity. It is a process of cultural loss and not of cultural expansion.Marcuse states that the U.S represents a prime example of how human existence in advanced industrial societies remains passive, satisfied, and unaware of its own alienation, he paints the image of the "One-dimensional man" an individual incapable of thinking and arriving at reality through the conflict of opposing forces and of questioning his society. Instead, humans had wilfully subordinated themselves to the domination of technology and the principles of efficiency, productivity, and conformity “loss of conscience due to the satisfactory liberties granted by an unfree society makes for a happy conscience which facilitates acceptance of the misdeeds of this society. It is the token of declining autonomy and comprehension” Marcuse continues to state “sublimation becomes the cognitive power which defeats suppression while bowing to it” (Marcuse 1964, p.79).
The structure of power within the United States has also deeply affected the U.S. response to the environmental impact of oil use. While abundant oil has helped fuel U.S. power and prosperity, it also helped entrench social and economic patterns dependent on ever-higher levels of energy use. The impact of oil use on the environment has become as important an issue as access to oil. Energy use is the primary source of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. For this reason, air pollution associated with energy use is considered to be the main threat to the earth's climate. Siddartha Obama highlights this irony by the centrally placed signifier of Obama holding a solar panel, a metaphor for the significant and central role the environment urgently needs for sustainability. Increasing energy demands and population growth will only make the situation worse. There are clear environmental limits to continuing, let alone expanding, the high production high consumption lifestyle associated with the U.S. model of development, as signified by the grasshopper pumps, oil barrels, derricks, smoke stacks and the wildlife covered in oil, a dynamic striking binary opposition to the natural beauty of the flora and fauna. Therefore, the most important question facing the U.S. in regard to oil in the twenty-first century may not be how to ensure access to oil to meet growing demands, but rather how to move away from what is clearly an unsustainable development path. Although Imperialism connotes Obama and Bush as identical, the concept of imperialism can just as easily be applied to previous U.S. leaders,
Binary opposition in the composition of Obama as Buddha is signified by the black background on the right as a signifier of neo-liberalism and the sky blue on the left, a reference to the impact of war, environmental degradation and 'freedoms' only enjoyed by the hegemonic and ethnocentric oppressors. This idea is reinforced by the sparks off explosions behind Obama.“contrary to popular myth, the Clinton administration effectively destroyed the movement to combat global warming” (Pilger, 2002 p.161) Pilger goes on to list the previous administrations expansion of the missile “defence” system referred to as 'Star Wars 2', the rejection of biological weapons verification (destructive to humans as well and most other forms of life), as well as the approval of the largest arms budget in history.
Despite the fact that native forests are a primary source of oxygen and biodiversity, producing unequalled carbon storage capacity thereby reducing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas caused by increasing use of energy, deforestation continues. A metaphor for global warming and its association to consumerism is made through the unrealistic and un-natural image of the polar bear riding a bicycle, reinforced by the image of the planet on fire. The U.S. has ignored conservation and adoption of alternative policies limiting the consumption of oil have clashed with well-organised political and economic interests,
This includes the widespread use of chemical fertilisers (often produced from oil) for pesticides and irrigation.“These worlds where far apart, rarely met and often came into conflict” (Hays 1998, p.318). Deep-seated ideological beliefs, and an economic system in which almost all investment decisions are in private hands, Hays continues, “The interplay of the two outer levels can often be examined most effectively in the context of state environmental politics” (Hays 1998, p.318) Pollution becomes more of a political problem than a scientific problem that affects people's lives in numerous ways, “These two worlds, that of the ultimate user of environmental resources in daily living, in home, community, and leisure, and of the manager of resource systems who directed and manipulated larger scale institutions through which resource delivery was organised” Hays and Tarr (1998).
The transformative power of capitalism (although different) is seen in the overwhelming traditional Asian art surrounding Obama as Buddha is an obvious connotation of the hegemonic shifts occurring, most notably from the U.S. To China "concur in erecting one great American system superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence and able to dictate the terms of the connections between the old world and the new." Bromley (1991, p.122) "For the American system," Bromley continued, could only survive "by becoming a world system." Bromley (1991, p.124) An analysis of the image of Orientalism in Western society, argues the West culturally dominated the Orient by creating an artificial cultural vision of the latter "as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience" (Said, 1978 p.2) His later study, Culture and Imperialism, details how Western authors and audiences developed a literary perspective on imperial geography distinguishing between "us" (the West) and "them" (the Third World). "Western imperialism and Third World nationalism feed off each other," Said summed up, "but even at their worst they are neither monolithic nor deterministic." (Said 1993 p. xxiv) The United States dilemma is a signifier of hegemonic decline.
This global approach reflects on the tension between local and super-national cultural and political development especially as Chinese hybridism emerges into the new world power. A signifier of this process is also seen in the unassuming Tibetan flag, a nation also consumed by the ethnocentrism of China. Given that reassuring China's neighbours about the peaceful nature of "China's rise" is at the heart of Chinese foreign policy today reveals the multiple and contradictory motives that drive Chinese nationalism. An example of this binary opposition is the Chinese representative holding an over-sized wind propeller, the connotation that China is both one of the largest polluting industrial nations as well as the nation building the worlds largest solar power plant.
The shift from Westernisation to globalization is the fusion of tradition and modernity:
In a totally interconnected global economy, no one country will be able to control the market, that for almost every academic discipline the "world of hybrid cultural production" is becoming the rule. Not so optimistic was Huntington who hypothesised that diaspora and divisions amongst nations of cultural and religious identity will be the primary source of conflict. The Artist signifies this by portraying Obama as Buddha surrounded by a golden aura and sacred lotus, as a means for calling for enlightenment, while at the same time portraying the U.S as 'God'."the beginning of a global reordering in which the West seeks its place in a world order it must now share with radically different societies. It is the beginning of a truly global politics." (Urry and Lasch, 1987 p.288) even theorise that the globalisation of economic, political, and social relationships indicates the "end of organised capitalism."
This view is echoed by by Said who states“More broadly, the religious resurgence throughout the world is a reaction against secularism, moral relativism, and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity. Religious groups meet social needs left untended by state bureaucracies.” (Huntington 1986, p.98) furthermore he says “dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” (Huntington 1986, p.184)
These analyses present a despairingly bleak picture of the future cultural world order. One can only hope that the future will include profound changes taking place at both the electoral and social level in United States society rather than focusing specifically on ethnocentric elitist policies or world-economic trends.“Like culture, religion furnishes us with systems of authority and with canons of order whose regular effect is either to compel subservience or to gain adherents. This in turn gives rise to organised collective passions whose social and intellectual results are often disastrous” (Said 1991 p.290).
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